Acclimatization in La Paz

Posted: May 30, 2012 by Ben Weber in English, Training
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La Paz is high. Over 3,500 metres (and the airport at El Alto is at just over 4,000 metres) – coming from São Paulo at around 760 metres above sea level, this is a bit of a change. Altitude sickness starts to become more common for travellers reaching 2,400 metres, so we are a bit higher than this.

During my time in Tibet and also Colombia, I had been to some pretty high places and had generally got by okay with standard acclimatization – relaxing for a few days before doing anything strenuous. Natalia hasn’t had quite so much experience and when we were in Quito last time, it was slightly harder for her, so this time she also prepared by taking Diamox (a drug for Glaucoma but also commonly used for helping climbers with altitude sickness). When we arrived in La Paz on Monday evening, we were prepared for an environment which would leave us slightly breathless.

We didn’t feel much at first – though we did just stroll along at the airport, and then it was a taxi to the hotel. It was an amazing view, by the way, as we came down from the airport. El Alto looks a bit of a slum and hides much of the city of La Paz, but as you start descending, you get a fantastic view over the city down the valley, with the snowy peaks of Illimani a beautiful backdrop to the place. When we got to the hotel, I carried both the bags for a while and that certainly left me short of breath. We both noticed quite quickly that our mouths became dry very frequently and we definitely needed to keep drinking plenty of water.

After having been shown around the hotel, we just relaxed and rested for the night in our room. I read for a while, while Natalia slept. A rather alarming thing happened in that Natalia got up to go to the bathroom, and she said that she was thirsty. When she was walking, it looked like that she was drunk, and then when she got back, she closed the door behind her and tried to switch on the light. But she collapsed and bashed her head against the door handle. Fortunately, she was okayish, though she couldn’t remember exactly what happened. I gave her more water and she recovered – just a bit of pain on the side of her face. Not sure exactly for the reasons for this – whether it was due to the altitude, maybe she needed more water (though she didn’t see dehydrated), though at the same time I noticed that one of the side effects of Diamox is confusion/disorientation – climbers have commented about how on the first day of using Diamox, they felt like they were climbing after having had a few drinks. Everything turned out okay in the end though.

So yesterday, we just wondered around La Paz – up the main trunk road to the San Francisco Church – a former convent that was constructed in the mid-16th Century (quite splendid inside, with an amazing chapel and a host of religions paintings as well as an impressive exterior which features a host of catholic and indigenous carvings in the stone) – and enjoying the restaurants (Llama meat was really very nice!). Bolivians seem to like their fried chicken and desserts (a hundred metre queue for one dessert shop was quite impressive – though we didn’t wait in line to find out what the delights there were really like. We probably walked steadily over the day for about six hours or so (with breaks for sitting, eating etc), and while we were occasionally short of breath, we felt okay on the whole and were pleased with the way things had gone.

As a note, the difference between being in the sun and the shade was quite impressive – really felt quite cool in the shade and we needed our fleeces, though we were easily able to walk in just t-shirts in the sunlight. But something I forgot from my time in Tibet was how bright the sun can be. Even with the pretty dark mountaineering sunglasses (with side protection as well to make sure that the eyes are full protected from snow-blindness while out in blinding white snow conditions) my eyes hurt a little and I was grateful to have taken them with me just for a day trip.

Finally, one of the … more interesting… parts of the day was at a cash machine, and we thought we would record a little for prosperity… (speaking in Portuguese, but it should be quite easy to see what was happening…)

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